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Repertory Archive

Antonín Dvořák


Biography

Antonín Dvořák was born in 1841 near Prague and died there in 1904.  Son of a village butcher and publican, he was himself a butcher boy.  He gained his interest in music from his father’s zither playing and from traveling bands.  He began singing and playing the violin, and took lessons on the piano and organ.  At twenty-one he got involved in a great national music event.  Bedrich Smetana returned from Sweden to help found a national dance theatre, the soon famous National Theatre of Prague.  Dvořák was admitted to the orchestra of this enterprise as a violist, and worked much on composition at the time.

About ten years later he obtained a good position as church organist and gave up orchestral playing.  His works began being heard with orchestras and one of his operas, King and Collier, was performed at the National Theatre.  He received a small pension from the Austrian Ministry of Fine Arts around this time.  He received considerable encouragement from Johannes Brahms, who was an appointed examiner of composition. With this help he soon found a publisher.  He then wrote the “Slavonic Dances for Pianoforte Duet,” the melody and spirit of which caught wide attention and his name became better known in Europe.

His Stabat Mater gained him fame in England and he composed new works and conducted at various English musical festivals.

He headed the National Conservatory in New York from 1892 to 1895.  On his return to Prague a few years later, he became head of that Conservatory.

Dvořák wrote eight other operas besides King and Collier, including Rusalka (The Water Nymph).  His other important and popular works include the overtures Carnival, My Home, Nature, and Othello; various string and piano pieces; large choral works, including a Requiem, a Te Deum, and The Spectre’s Bride; and a good many songs and part songs. He also wrote nine symphonies.  His extremely popular “humoresque,” scored for a great variety of instruments, is merely one, the seventh of eight, that he wrote for piano.

Among Dvořák’s particular gifts are a characteristic and often unexpected harmony, a remarkably fresh, vital use of orchestra and a real genius for chamber music for strings.  In addition to the positive value of his contribution to repertory, he is one of the leaders of the great nationalist movement of the nineteenth century.

Source:  The Oxford Companion to Music, Tenth Edition